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VIKINGS

Vikings were outlaws like Hells Angels: exhibition

A warrior identity was at the centre of what it meant to be a Viking, with the coastal raiders embracing an outlaw mentality like punks or Hells Angels today, according a London exhibition on Norway's most famous historical export.

Vikings were outlaws like Hells Angels: exhibition
The 37-metre-long Viking warship Roskilde 6. Photo: Paul Raftery/British Museum
'Vikings: life and legend' which opens in the British Museum on Thursday, brings together new finds from across Europe, including a magnificent 37-metre-long Viking warship found in Denmark in 1997, in the museum's first Viking exhibition since 1980. 
 
"Cultural contact was often violent, and the transportation of looted goods and slaves reflects the role of Vikings as both raiders and traders," the museum said in a press release on the exhibition, arguing that the exhibition would bring to life "new interpretations" which undermined "the peaceful trader of post-1970s Viking studies". 
 
Gareth Williams, one of the curators behind the exhibition, argued in the catalogue that it was important to remember the upheaval that the Vikings had caused on British shores.  
 
"While a broader view of the Viking Age is a good thing, it is important not to forget that it was the warlike aspects of Scandinavian society from the late eighth to eleventh centuries that give us the concept of ‘Vikings’ and the ‘Viking Age’," he writes. 
 
"The masculine noun víkingr in Old Norse meant a pirate or raider, and the feminine noun víking meant a raiding expedition," he continues, adding that "in the sagas at least,
the term often carries negative overtones, and it seems that being considered a ‘Viking’ was not entirely respectable." 
 
He argues that the term "Viking" was not simply synonymous with Dane, Swede or Norwegian, nor that not even all warriors from the Nordic countries qualified for Viking status. 
 
Instead, a viking was a particular type of warrior, who embraced their outlaw status. 
 
"There may have been a conscious element of social deviance among them," he argues, pointing to reports of their filed teeth, tattoos, eye make-up, and eccentric clothing. 
 
"This has parallels with modern groups such as punks and Hell’s Angels, both of which combine a fierce visual image with a rejection of conventional social values," he writes, noting the parallels drawn by the archeologist Neil Price with the flamboyant appearance favoured by seventeenth- and eighteenth-century pirates.
 
Later in the Viking Age, the exhibition explains, the raiding parties and pirate bands grew to become small armies, as the petty kingdoms in Scandinavia consolidated, and the people we know as the Vikings increasingly sought to conquer, settle and trade, as well as loot. 

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SHIP

Race against time (and mould) to uncover secrets of Viking ship

Inch by inch, they gently pick through the soil in search of thousand-year-old relics. Racing against onsetting mould yet painstakingly meticulous, archaeologists in Norway are exhuming a rare Viking ship grave in hopes of uncovering the secrets within.

Race against time (and mould) to uncover secrets of Viking ship
Three members of the excavation team surface cleaning the ship edges. Photo: Margrethe K. H. Havgar/KHM
Who is buried here? Under which ritual? What is left of the burial offerings? And what can they tell us about the society that lived here?
   
Now reduced to tiny fragments almost indistinguishable from the turf that covers it, the 20-metre (65-foot) wooden longship raises a slew of questions.
   
The team of archaeologists is rushing to solve at least some of the mystery before the structure is entirely ravaged by microscopic fungi.
   
It's an exhilarating task: there hasn't been a Viking ship to dig up in more than a century.
   
The last was in 1904 when the Oseberg longship was excavated, not far away on the other side of the Oslo Fjord, in which the remains of two women were discovered among the finds.
   
“We have very few burial ships,” says the head of the dig, Camilla Cecilie Wenn of the University of Oslo's Museum of Cultural History. “I'm incredibly lucky, few archaeologists get such an opportunity in their career.”
 
The museum is documenting the dig on a section of its homepage
   
Under a giant grey and white tent placed in the middle of ancient burial grounds near the southeastern town of Halden, a dozen workers in high visibility vests kneel or lie on the ground, examining the earth.
   
Buried underground, the contours of the longship were detected in 2018 by geological radar equipment, as experts searched the known Viking site.  When the first test digs revealed the ship's advanced state of
decomposition, the decision was taken to quickly excavate it.
 
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Viking VIP
 
So far, only parts of the keel have been dug out in reasonable condition.
 
Analyses of the pieces have determined that the ship was probably raised on land around the ninth century, placed in a pit and buried under a mound of earth as a final resting place.
   
But for whom? “If you're buried with a ship, then it's clear you were a VIP in your lifetime,” Wenn says.
   
A king? A queen? A Viking nobleman, known as a jarl? The answer may lie in the bones or objects yet to be found — weapons, jewels, vessels, tools, etc — that are typical in graves from the Viking Age, from the mid-eighth to mid-11th centuries.
   
The site has however been disturbed several times, accelerating the ship's disintegration and reducing the chance of finding relics.
   
At the end of the 19th century, the burial mound was razed to make space for farmland, entirely destroying the upper part of the hull and damaging what is believed to have been the funeral chamber.
   
It's also possible that the grave may have been plundered long before that, by other Vikings keen to get their hands on some of the precious burial offerings and to symbolically assert their power and legitimacy.
 
 
Animal bones
 
So far the archaeologists' bounty is pretty meagre: lots of iron rivets used for the boat's assembly, most heavily corroded over time, as well as a few bones.
   
“These bones are too big to be human,” says field assistant Karine Fure Andreassen, as she leans over a large, orange-tinged bone.
   
“This is not a Viking chief we're looking at unfortunately, it's probably a horse or cattle.”
 
“It's a sign of power. You were so rich that an animal could be sacrificed to be put in your grave,” she explains.
   
Beside the tent, Jan Berge looks like he's panning for gold. He's sifting soil and spraying it with water in hopes of finding a little nugget from the past. 
   
“Make an exceptional find? I doubt it,” admits the archaeologist. “The most precious items have probably already been taken. And anything made of iron or organic material has eroded over time or completely disappeared.”
   
But Berge, whose big bushy beard gives him the air of a Viking, is not easily discouraged.
   
“I'm not here for a treasure hunt,” he says. “What interests me is finding out what happened here, how the funeral was carried out, how to interpret the actions of the time.”
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